from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
November 6, 2000


In a dramatic victory over the government secrecy bureaucracy, President Clinton overruled several members of his own national security team and vetoed the Intelligence Authorization Act for FY 2001 "because of one badly flawed provision that would have made a felony of unauthorized disclosures of classified information."

"As President, ... it is my obligation to protect not only our Governmentís vital information from improper disclosure, but also to protect the rights of citizens to receive the information necessary for democracy to work. Furthering these goals requires a careful balancing," the President said in a veto statement on November 4. "This legislation does not achieve the proper balance... There is a serious risk that this legislation would tend to have a chilling effect on those who engage in legitimate activities...."

In a rebuke to the congressional intelligence committees, the President noted that "The problem is compounded because this provision was passed without benefit of public hearings."

The whole effort to criminalize disclosures of classified information is an embarrassment, above all, to the Senate and House intelligence committees, which sought to advance the perceived interests of the intelligence community without any consideration of larger national interests.

The Presidential veto also signifies a reversal of the traditional roles of the legislative and executive branches. Students of intelligence oversight will puzzle over the fact that the congressional intelligence committees acted on behalf of the agencies they oversee -- to the exclusion of the public voices they supposedly represent -- while the President intervened to block their attempt to grant broad new legal authority to the executive branch.

The Presidentís veto statement is posted here:


The controversy over unauthorized disclosures of classified information is not over.

The controversy is inflamed, and opposing positions are hardened, by the remarkably brazen publication practices of the Washington Times. The Times, more than any other party outside of government, is proximately responsible for the legislative hysteria that produced the now-vetoed "leak" statute.

In a front page story in the Washington Times today, Bill Gertz reports the not quite startling news that Russian merchant ships monitor U.S. nuclear submarines in the Pacific Northwest. But he then goes on to quote from classified CIA and NSA documents which reveal that a specific Russian ship had sent certain specific messages to Russian intelligence officials in Vladivostok.

By describing the specific contents of these messages, The Washington Times is announcing to the world that U.S. intelligence has the capability to intercept and presumably decrypt a certain specified form of Russian communications. It is reasonable to suppose that this will trigger an immediate upgrade in Russian communications security -- and a probable loss of information for U.S. intelligence in the future. It is hard to identify any countervailing public interest in the reported details that would justify the accompanying loss to U.S. intelligence.

There is a school of thought that says one should always expose any government secrets that come to hand, as an appropriate response to the governmentís tendency to withhold too much. "Authority always errs on the side of concealment, requiring subjects to strike a balance by erring on the side of revelation," wrote columnist William Safire in his book on the Book of Job entitled The First Dissident (p. 205).

But to argue that indiscriminate secrecy justifies indiscriminate publication of secrets is to give up any hope of reforming secrecy policy through remedial measures, and to invite punitive steps like the congressional leak statute.

The Government can hardly criticize the Washington Times, since to do so might smack of censorship or political vendetta. Other news organizations, which compete with the Washington Times, cannot criticize the paper because that would seem disingenuous and self-serving.

So no one publicly criticizes the Washington Timesí practice of indiscriminate publication of classified information. But it stinks.

The Washington Times story, "Russian merchant ships used in spying," appears here:


To subscribe to Secrecy News, send email to [email protected] with this command in the body of the message:

To unsubscribe, send email to [email protected] with this command in the body of the message: Secrecy News is archived at: